Build from scratch or convert to an electric vehicle?

Rachel Burgess, writing for Autocar:

"Which is wisest? The use of a single electric platform must make engineering infinitely easier, rather than heavily adapting existing architectures. But the obvious upside of offering electric variants of existing models is the equity of that model’s name. Aren’t you much more likely to buy a well-regarded model that just happens to have an electric powertrain rather than an unknown?"

Re-engineering a combustion engine car to fit an electric powertrain appears to be the pragmatic option in terms of retaining brand awareness and minimising the cost and time taken to develop the car. In 2020, the ordinary consumer will know exactly what a VW e-Golf is; namely a compact, affordable five door hatchback with an electric powertrain. How many of those consumers, in contrast, will know what a VW I.D. is? I would wager far less than the e-Golf.

What is even more clear, however, is that the electric powertrain is fundamentally different from that of a combustion engined car. A car with a powertrain so different from its combustion engined counterpart must, in turn, be built from scratch in a fundamentally different manner in order to reap the maximum benefits of the electric powertrain.

Consider the remarkable Tesla Model S, for example. The Model S is able to offer peerless acceleration and best in class safety and practicality (with a 'frunk' and large rear boot) because, not despite, it being been built and designed from the ground up for an electric powertrain. Could Tesla have saved time and money buying an existing, conventional mid-size platform and chassis from any number of manufacturers and then refitting an electric motor, akin to the original Tesla Roadster? Of course. But would it have enabled the same levels of practicality, performance and safety as a new, specially engineered ground up design? Most likely not.

The Tesla story goes to show that tailored design and engineering can create a substantially better product than an ostensibly easier 'swap engine for electric motor' approach. Famously, Tesla has undertaken little to no marketing of the Model S. How often do you see a print, television or web advertisement of a Tesla vehicle? Yours truly has certainly never seen one, and yet the Model S and upcoming Model 3 are the talk of the town. For Tesla at least, the fact of the matter is that its approach to electric vehicle design and engineering has developed vehicles so substantively better than the competition that traditional marketing is unnecessary and word-of-mouth alone is enough. 

Word-of-mouth has long been known to be the most effective form of marketing. After all, are you more likely to believe a company's own advertisement or the recommendation of a trusted friend or family member? Ultimately, this solves the challenge posed by Burgess in the quoted Autocar article. With tailored design and engineering producing a substantially better product, the car will market itself and eventually create a greater brand equity than if the manufacturer had chosen a conventional 'engine swap' approach.

Kia Stinger designer interview (Autocar)

Steve Cropley, reporting for Autocar:

"Standing next to the new Stinger, the key facets of the layout become obvious: the long bonnet, the short front overhang, the low roof of a cabin pushed to the rear and, above all, the generous dash-to-axle dimension that clearly advertises the fact that there’s a potent north-south engine in there, driving either the rear wheels or, in some cases, all of them.

Even for this emotional car, Guillaume says, there were numerous areas where design restraint was needed, such as leaving out a rear hatch. “We wanted the fastback look,” he explains, “but not the extra structure and weight of a hatch”. Likewise, they decided against an active rear spoiler because of weight, complexity and the fact that it would have introduced an extra rear shutline. But the original concept’s vents behind the front wheels were kept (Guillaume calls them “breathers”), because they have a genuine function in reducing aero pressure in the wheel housings."

Excellent interview with Gregory Guillaume, Kia's European design chief.

Design is as much about choosing what to leave out as what to put in. The Kia Stinger is the most elegant Korean car ever made. I'm glad Kia left that gaudy gold interior on the drawing board, though. 

Profile: Gosford Classic Car Museum

The automotive landscape extends well beyond the new and used car markets. Classic cars remain an important part of the industry, not least as a growing market in their own right, but also due to their importance as time capsules of the design and technological capabilities of their era, and the inspiration that they provide for the development of new models.

The Gosford Classic Car Museum is the largest such privately held collection of classic cars in the Southern Hemisphere. Owned by entrepreneur Tony Denny, the museum boasts a rotating collection of 550 vehicles, with 370 on display.

Above: Staff with a part of the museum's collection.

But how does one define what a classic car is? Is it simply the age of the vehicle? Ken Grindrod, museum curator, contends that apart from having an age of between 50-70 years, the historical significance of the vehicle and the number produced are other important factors to take into consideration.

"Every car needs to be looked at on its merits. [There are] some cars that would never be a classic but be collectible, and other cars that will always be a classic."

Despite having one of the world's largest classic car collections, the museum hasn't compromised on quality in pursuit of quantity. Mr Grindrod states that each vehicle goes through a rigorous due diligence process prior to being purchased.  Previous ownership, when the car was last restored, where the car originated from and available documentation, amongst other criteria, are all evaluated before a decision to purchase the vehicle is made. Whilst there is a preference towards Concours-level vehicles, the museum itself does not restore cars and each car is assessed individually for its value rather than having to meet a strict checklist of essential requirements.

"We track back who owned it, where it came from, because there are stories there to go with the car. In some cases, even though a classic may not be in top condition, its better to leave it as it is rather than restore it as it preserves the patina of the car."

Of course, market trends are another consideration that the museum takes into account when determining whether to add a car to the collection. Mr Grindrod comments that these trends vary upon the historical origin of the vehicle, with English, German and American cars, for example, continually changing in value in correspondence with altering buyer preferences. 

"Part of running a large collection of classic cars is that we have a knowledge of these trends, and that we follow and predict these trends" affirmed Mr Grindrod.

Given the importance of accurately analysing these trends, it might be reasonable to assume that the museum utilises a dedicated team of economists who have expertise in forecasting future trends in the classic car marketplace. However, this is not the case. Mr Grindrod confirms that as part of their responsibilities, museum staff collectively monitor trends, and are 'tapped into' several websites around the world that attempt to predict what will happen in the future. Moreover, by holding such a large classic car collection, Mr Grindrod contends that the museum has the ability to be a trendsetter in its own right. 

"We believe that because we're one of the biggest classic car buying people in the world, we can not only predict these trends, but quite often we set these trends ourselves."

Asked to elaborate on some current market trends, Mr Grindrod hints that British cars, especially older Jaguars and Austin-Healys, as well as certain American vehicles such as older Fords and Duesenbergs, are vehicles that are currently increasing in value. In supporting his claim, Mr Grindrod cites the example of a recent sale of a lightweight Jaguar D-Type that participated in the prestigious Le Mans endurance race; initially sold for $5 million, the car was subsequently auctioned off for $7 million two weeks later.

Vehicles such as the 1948 Jaguar Mark IV Drophead (above) are examples of classics that may increase in value.

A key aspect of owning a various range of exotic vehicles from all over the world is maintaining them and ensuring that they remain in a pristine, drivable condition. This presents a challenge for newer, more complex vehicles that may not have officially been sold domestically, and thus have limited local support channels. The museum's Ferrari LaFerrari is a prime example. Part of a limited production run of 500 and the fastest production road-going Ferrari to date, the vehicle is cared for directly by the Italian manufacturer, who regularly send a team of specialist mechanics to charge the vehicle's batteries and ensure that it is in perfect condition. The museum remains closed two days per week so that each car in the collection can be thoroughly maintained.

Above: Gosford Classic Car Museum's LaFerrari.

With the classic car market remaining sustainable, Mr Grindrod rejects any notion that the museum needs to alter its collection to cater for a younger audience. With the classic car market outstripping the overall automotive sales market in terms of growth rate, Mr Grindrod suggests that the museum's focus in the foreseeable future will remain on cars, rather than expanding to trucks or other types of classic commercial vehicles.

Above: 1950 Alvis TB14 Roadster

Since opening its doors eleven months ago, the Gosford Classic Car Museum has had over 100,000 visitors, including attendees from overseas, and Mr Grindrod highlights this fact to underscore the contribution that the Museum has made to the tourism industry in Gosford and the wider Central Coast area.

"The big dimension is what this is actually doing for Gosford. You only get back the effort that you put in, and we hope that the Museum will become one of Australia's major tourist attractions."

Above: 1993 Aussie Invader III. Australian built and piloted, this vehicle recorded a top speed of 1026 km/h in 1996. 

For further information about the Gosford Classic Car Museum, please visit www.gosfordclassiccarmuseum.com.au. All images in this article are to the credit and copyright of Gosford Classic Car Museum, and used with their permission.

I would like to place on record my thanks to Ken Grindrod, curator of the Gosford Classic Car Museum, for being available for this interview. 

Interior design: Infotainment screens and the 'tee'

In most mainstream vehicles, the design of the interior naturally follows a "T" shape. The dashboard, usually containing the driver's instrument cluster, air-vents, infotainment system, media and climate controls, stretches horizontally across the width of the car, whilst the centre console extends downwards to separate the driver and front passenger's space. In turn, a manufacturer may use this fundamental interior architecture to contrast the horizontal or vertical axis of the "tee." 

This is evident in the C-Class above. In this vehicle, Mercedes has developed a 'waterfall' style centre console that uses a single curved plane to flow organically from the horizontal dashboard into a "T" shape, creating a smooth division between the driver and front passenger. This console can also be personalised in numerous trim options, to create a contrast with the horizontal axis of the interior.

Above: In addition to the wood veneer, the centre console of the C-Class is also available in piano black and carbon-fibre trims, all acting as a contrast to the interior's dashboard (horizontal axis).

In this sense, Mercedes' incorporation of a flowing centre console accentuates the vertical axis of the "T" interior design common to most passenger vehicles.

Above: The 2015 Volkswagen Passat interior.

Volkswagen's Passat takes a different approach by placing emphasis upon the width of the dashboard rather than the centre console. A uniform horizontal strip runs across the top of the dashboard. By cleverly disguising the air vents, this strip develops a Bauhaus style minimalist allusion of a single air-vent for the entire dashboard, whilst also highlighting the width, and hence spaciousness, of the vehicle.

Thus, whilst Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz place a focus on the horizontal and vertical aspects of their interiors respectively, overall these manufacturers reinforce the inherent "T" design of an interior.

Drawing inspiration from Mercedes-Benz, vehicles such as the new Kia Stinger have a similar approach to the C-Class.

 Above: The interior of the 2018 Kia Stinger.

Placement of the infotainment display

A criticism of both the Stinger and the C-Class' interior design is the placement of the infotainment screen, perched on top of the dashboard akin to an iPad being glued on top of the air-conditioning vents.

This placement of the infotainment system detracts from the brands' otherwise sharp focus on maintaining the "tee." Tacking on the infotainment screen to the top of, or in front of, the dashboard interrupts its horizontal flow, and creates a messy, cluttered design that disrupts the inherent "T" shape.

Above: A view of the centre console of the C-Class with the infotainment system above the air-vents. Whilst the flowing, 'waterfall' style centre console is elegant, the infotainment screen clutters the dashboard and disrupts the otherwise clean 'tee' architecture established by the centre console.

Above: The interior of the 2017 E-Class, a vehicle that is a step up in size from the C-Class.

The E-Class interior depicted above demonstrates how the infotainment system can be fully integrated into the dashboard without disrupting the 'tee.'

This interior presents an evolution of the design used on the C-Class. By cleanly incorporating the infotainment screen and the instrument panel into a discrete dashboard panel above the air-vents, Mercedes shifts the design focus on to the horizontal axis of the 'tee.'

On certain trims, horizontal lines embossed into the panelling further accentuate this horizontal flow. Nevertheless, the retention of a flowing lower centre console, albeit to a lesser extent than the C-Class, develops an overall cohesive and elegant interior design that is balanced between its focus on the horizontal and vertical axes, and is a significant improvement upon the interior of the smaller C-Class.

Of course, the infotainment screen can be equally as well integrated into the vertical axis of the 'tee.' It is not necessary for the infotainment display to be confined to the horizontal axis, or dashboard, of the interior in order to maintain a clean, cohesive look. Vehicles such as the McLaren 570S and Volvo S90 are a testament to this.

Above top: The interior of the McLaren 570S. Below: The Volvo S90. Whilst the McLaren is geared towards a significantly different market than the other cars described here, it remains relevant when purely considering the design of the interior.

Rather than perching the infotainment system on top of the dashboard or the centre console, both the McLaren and Volvo incorporate a portrait-orientation display in line with the vertical centre console, thus maintaining a cohesive look.     

Exceptions

An exception to the advantages of an integrated look is where the infotainment screen is the focal point of the interior, such as in the BMW i3 and the Tesla Model 3.

Above: 2014 BMW i3. Below: 2018 Tesla Model 3 prototype interior. 

In both vehicles, the primary reason why the non-integrated design of the infotainment screen is suitable is the deferential nature of the rest of the interior.

The Tesla Model 3 prototype, for example, not only lacks an instrument cluster for the driver, but its minimalist design hides any visible air vents and other physical buttons and switches. Consequently, the large infotainment screen becomes the only source of entertainment, information and control for the driver and passengers. As a result, the remainder of the interior is deferential to the infotainment screen, thus validating its tablet style placement in front of the dashboard such that it becomes the primary focus and can be optimally viewed by both the driver and passengers. 

The BMW i3 follows a similar principle. The air-vents, media and ventilation controls are functional, rather than fancy, in nature, and thus defer attention towards the infotainment system. In the specific case of the i3, a half length centre console means that there is no traditional division between the driver and passenger, and hence no 'tee' to the interior design. This enables BMW to instead place emphasis upon the horizontal plane of the interior in an effort to accentuate the width of the car. The 'floating' style placement of the infotainment screen, together with its widescreen display ratio, combines with the lengthwise orientation of the wood trim to further highlight the width of the dashboard.

Conclusion

Fundamentally, automotive manufacturers should place the infotainment display such that it respects the intent and the inherent architecture of the interior. Where this architecture is a 'T' shape, the infotainment system as a rule of thumb should be located cleanly in either the dashboard (horizontal axis) or within the centre console (vertical axis), possibly by using a portrait orientation. In contrast, if the interior is deferential to the infotainment system, the display should generally be located at a focal point where it can be optimally viewed by all occupants of the vehicle.

The Verge report on Faraday Future

Andrew J. Hawkins, writing for The Verge:

Before the tour, head of corporate affairs Greg Adams gave a presentation, where he said FF’s first production car would be “a super device that happens to have four wheels.” Adams went on: it was an electric car, but not one you would own, rather one you would subscribe to. It was a self-driving car, but also one you would summon using your smartphone for a ride-sharing trip. And it was a racecar, one that would compete in an upcoming Formula E race under the Dragon Racing team banner.

“The idea of the company is that we want to liberate everything you do when you’re with a device, how you move, how you breathe,” he said. “But in the end we’re all about liberation. Extreme liberation.” He has also said the company is also about “extreme technology.

A focus on everything is a focus on nothing. Adams' talk about one autonomous super device, incorporating 'extreme' technology, that can serve as a ride sharing, point to point vehicle whilst also being able to compete in a Formula E race sound like marketing buzzwords rather than any real concrete plan to create an electric vehicle.

Hawkins continues:

Additional reporting revealed that FF may have difficulty finding additional investors to stabilize its finances. According to former employees, FF is in effect not one, but two companies, with a separate entity based out of the Cayman Islands just for FF’s intellectual property. “If you’re an investor, you’re fucked,” one ex-executive said. “The company doesn’t own the IP.”

But another former executive disputed the notion that the separate company, FF Cayman Global, was bad for investors. “I don’t think IP being located in the Caymans is a bad thing for investors. It’s a bad thing for suppliers,” the executive said. In the event of a bankruptcy, the source said, the suppliers may not be able to file claims against the assets in an offshore entity like FF Cayman Global.

A large proportion of any company's value is made up of the Intellectual Property (IP) that it owns. For Faraday Future (FF), a newly established start-up that aims to differentiate itself through its unique, highly advanced technology and other innovations, its IP is the entirety of its worth.

Not owning the technology that you have purported to develop has serious consequences. Amongst others, a third party or other company (such as FF Cayman Global) with a stake in FF's Intellectual Property could exert undue influence or pressure on the company's R&D direction and the products that it brings to market. In a worst case scenario, FF's IP could be transferred to a competitor that could legitimately demand (and take legal action) that Faraday Future cease business operations out of infringing the competitor's IP. 

To put it bluntly, Faraday Future not owning its IP gives rise to a very large serving of scepticism regarding its viability as a going concern and as a sustainable business entity. Whilst FF deserves the benefit of the doubt on the basis of the talent they have employed, the company at present is as valuable as Monopoly money.

Tesla hires Volvo interior designer

Jonathan M. Gitlin, writing for Ars Technica:

Anyone who has driven a Model S or Model X also can’t help but notice the company’s weakest point—the terrible interiors. Evidently Tesla has realized this and has poached Volvo’s head of interiors, Anders Bell, in order to remedy the problem.

It’s not just a lack of design flair—although that is certainly true. It’s also the materials used, most of which would look out of place in an economy car in 2016, let alone a luxury SUV or sedan that starts out at more than $60,000. And this stuff is important. As a driver, the interior of a car is the bit that you’ll look at and touch almost all the time.

Acres of flat, black shiny plastic abound. The Model X central storage bin has cheap removable inserts for cup holders. And the cubby that lives below the massive touchscreen in the Model S? No one thought to give it a lip at the forward edge, so anything you put in there is headed straight for the back seat the moment you hit the accelerator. And that’s before we’ve touched on the Q&A problems—the last Model S the company let me drive had that cubby misaligned, so there was a half-inch gap at the upper left corner.

Yours truly has recently sat in a Tesla Model S, and whilst the technology on offer in the interior, such as the digital instrument cluster and expansive tablet-style touchscreen are seriously impressive, the materials used aren't, with obviously fake metal trim and plastic wood. 

It's unclear as to precisely what influence Anders Bell had in the interior development of vehicles like the S90, but this looks to be a great hire for Tesla. Volvo has recently been on a roll in creating stunning, honestly designed interiors. If Tesla can replicate Volvo's interior design expertise it will be a huge advantage for them.      

Alfa Romeo: Branding and Badging

Coinciding with the launch of the new Giulia, Alfa Romeo has undertaken a company wide rebranding initiative. This initiative has not only involved subtle changes in the firm's badge, but also the addition of a new company tagline, "La meccanica delle emozioni."

Above left and right: The old (1972-2015) and new (2015-present) Alfa Romeo logo.

In English, "La meccanica delle emozioni" translates to "The mechanics of emotion." 

On its face, this is a broad and vague slogan. As no-one wishes to drive what they perceive as a dull car, such a catchphrase could be applied to almost any automotive brand in the world. Manufacturers may market their vehicles as affordable, or safe, or reliable and durable, but none of those virtues are traded with emotion. A vehicle may have emotion omitted from its marketing, but it is highly unusual for it to be explicitly sold as dull. In this sense, a catchphrase such as "The mechanics of emotion" could be construed as subject to many interpretations and universally applicable, rather than something exclusive to Alfa Romeo.

In an automotive sense, emotion can include both the practical experience of actually owning and driving a car, as well as feelings generated by the marque's designs and historical successes and failures. This article will focus on how Alfa Romeo's history of car design, and branding, have made the phrase "La meccanica delle emozioni" apt for it to use.

Heritage        

Alfa Romeo's heritage is littered with depressing lows and soaring highs. Vehicles such as the Alfa Romeo Montreal and the Giulietta Sprint were striking designs that stirred emotions, despite their contrasting approaches to styling.

Top: 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint. Below: 1970 Alfa Romeo Montreal.

The Giulietta Sprint pictured above is a design that is timeless because it achieves elegance through its proportions and uncluttered styling, free from superfluous details, such as fins, that were popular in American vehicles at the time. In contrast, the Montreal is notable for its more flamboyant details such as the fake horizontal vents behind each door and the slotted grille above the headlamps. Regardless of their differing approaches to exterior styling, both vehicles presented memorable designs that arguably represented zeniths for the company.

Above: 1983 Alfa Romeo Arna.

Perhaps the most obvious example that helped stereotype Alfa Romeo's reputation as a maker of unreliable vehicles was the Alfa Romeo Arna. Borne out of a partnership between Alfa Romeo and Nissan, the Arna unfortunately combined the negative aspects of both companies, with Nissan's unremarkable styling and Alfa Romeo's poorly made engine, transmission and front suspension. With Alfa Romeo at the time being state owned, the Italian government directed that the vehicle be built in the poorer southern region of Italy in order to reduce unemployment and economically rejuvenate the area.

Whilst the economy of southern Italy may have benefitted from this decision, by employing workers unqualified and unskilled in automobile manufacturing, the durability of the Arna itself suffered heavily, with shoddy build quality and reliability. With prior models such as the Alfasud suffering from rust even on the production line, the Arna only served to exacerbate Alfa Romeo's newfound reputation of building beautiful pieces of junk.

In this sense, "La meccanica delle emozioni" is an appropriate catchphrase for the brand, as, when looked at holistically, it captures the experiences associated with these design successes and failures for Alfa Romeo.

Badging

Badging is another way through which Alfa Romeo attempts to be perceived as emotional. For Alfa Romeo, it also serves to create a key a point of difference from its German counterparts.

Fundamentally, this point of difference manifests itself in the dichotomy in naming models based upon body style and specification versus intention, history and emotion. Typically, German manufacturers such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have followed the former philosophy, whilst Alfa Romeo has pursued the latter.

In the numerical BMW range, models based on odd numbers, such as the 1, 3, 5 and 7 Series are traditional sedans (or hatchbacks in the case of the 1 Series), while models based on even numbers, such as the 2, 4 and 6-Series are coupé derivations of these odd-numbered models. The two following numbers usually denote either engine size or specification level. For example, a 320d is a compact, smaller engine/lower specification sedan, while a 420d is a coupé version of the same vehicle.

Above: BMW 3 Series sedan (left) and 4 Series coupé (right).

Above: Examples of the various badges that BMW has used. Notice that they all largely follow an identical naming structure.

Whilst a numbering scheme such as BMW's quickly conveys to the consumer the body style, size and specification of the vehicle, it sheds little light on the intention behind it. A 320d is a compact sedan with a 2.0 litre diesel engine, but is it a sporting vehicle or a luxury vehicle, or both? What were the emotions and thoughts of the designers and engineers who developed the car? A logical model designation system gives no insight into these questions.  

Alfa Romeo in contrast personifies its cars through names. A name can be divisive and stir passions, but most importantly, it can signify intention in a way that a numerical designation cannot. 

A recent example of this is the newly launched Alfa Romeo Stelvio, named after the Passo dello Stelvio, or Stelvio Pass.

Alfa_Romeo-Stelvio_Quadrifoglio-2018-1600-04.jpg

Top: 2017 Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Bottom: The Stelvio's namesake, the Stelvio Pass in Italy. Image credit Wikimedia.

The Stelvio Pass is renowned for being one of the finest driving roads in Europe. A mountain pass in northern Italy near the Swiss border, its numerous hairpin turns and stunning scenery make it a challenging yet rewarding test of the driver's skill and the vehicle's handling ability.

By using the Stelvio Pass as the namesake for its new SUV, Alfa Romeo reinforces the sporting intention of its new vehicle in an immediately obvious way. Stelvio is a famous, emotional and powerful name that boldly demonstrates Alfa Romeo's intention to make its new SUV outhandle and outperform anything else in its class.

On the flipside, personifying vehicles through names clearly obfuscates characteristics such as engine size and body style. If model names such as "Alfa Romeo Stelvio" and "Alfa Romeo Giulia" are listed on the printed page without any surrounding context such as a picture, the customer obtains little pragmatically useful information. For all they know, the Stelvio could be a sporty little convertible and the Giulia the brand's SUV.

Realistically, however, this is an implausible scenario. Customers research cars in many different ways, but they are all primarily visual, whether it be observing it in person, watching videos or looking at pictures of the prospective vehicle. Consequently, aspects such as the size and shape of the vehicle don't need to be explicitly mentioned in the model designation, as they are already immediately apparent to the customer. What may not be so obvious are the the thoughts, intentions and emotions behind the car, and thus a model designation should focus primarily upon clarifying these aspects of a vehicle.

Alfa Romeo does this best by using names that personify their vehicles, and thus truly highlighting the emotion of mechanics, or "La meccanica del emozioni", that is central to their cars.

Audi TT air vent design

The recently launched Audi TT is notable for its interior design, especially the unique design of the air-conditioning controls that are integrated into the air-vents:

Audi-TT_Coupe-2015-1600-47.jpg

HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning) controls on the 2015 Audi TT  

This is an excellent design. 

Fundamentally, changing something like the A/C temperature or fan speed involves two senses. Sight is needed to observe what the currently displayed temperature is and to then adjust the setting. Secondly, touch, or more specifically, thermoception, is needed to 'feel' the new temperature or fan speed change and confirm whether the new setting is appropriate, or whether further adjustment is required.

Thus, this process usually involves a two-step action: manipulating the switch or dial to change the temperature/air-flow, and then placing a hand near the air vent to 'feel' whether the new temperature and air-flow is right.

Most car interiors reinforce this two step process by separating the air-vent and temperature controls and placing them in disparate locations.

2017 Porsche 718 Boxster. The HVAC controls are just visible at the bottom of the image.

An example of this is the Porsche 718 Boxster. Porsche takes a contrasting approach to Audi and places its HVAC controls almost diametrically opposite to the air-vents, with both being separated by the infotainment screen and the media controls. Consequently, this design enforces the rigid two-step process outlined above, by forcing the driver to physically move their hand between two different locations in order to ensure the correct temperature and airflow setting.

Audi's design, in contrast, is innovative because it elegantly and efficiently combines the disparate two step process in the Porsche and other vehicles. By integrating all necessary HVAC controls, including temperature, fan speed and airflow within the air-vent, the driver can simultaneously adjust the control and immediately feel the effect of their action, without having to physically move their arm.

While this may seem to be a superficial change, Audi's design has numerous benefits. Not only does it create a sense of harmony and visual symmetry, but by minimising the number of separate buttons and switches, it greatly reduces the potential for the driver to be confused or frustrated by excessive clutter and small, illogically placed controls. By streamlining a relatively complicated, two-step process into a single action, Audi's design could also potentially increase road safety, by essentially halving the time the driver spends with one hand on the steering wheel.

An innovative, refreshing and logical design that clearly moves the ball forward. Great work.

Honest design

In the automotive industry, honest design should be thought of as a universal, guiding set of principles that encapsulates not only being true to the vehicle's purpose, but also being honest with the materials used.

Honest purpose

To put it simply, it should be obvious from a vehicle's design what its primary function should be. Although a first glance at a vehicle's exterior or interior can easily communicate this, the greater challenge is staying true to the vehicle's original purpose.

Above: The Volvo S90 in luxurious Inscription trim.

Pictured above, the Volvo S90 is a great example of this challenge.

Fundamentally, the S90 is a luxury-oriented executive sedan. The long dash-to-axle ratio, together with the Thor's hammer LED headlights and traditional three-box sedan body style give the vehicle an elegant, refined stance. On the Inscription trim, the eight spoke wheel design develops an impression of strength through its muscular appearance, adding an understated element of confidence to the vehicle overall.

Above: The eight spoke wheel design standard on the Volvo S90 Inscription trim level.

Despite the odd sporting vehicle such as the P1800, at its core, Volvo is a fundamentally conservative, safety and luxury focused brand. 

Above: 1966 Volvo P1800

Volvo's overall mission is perhaps best summarised by the words of its founders, Assar Gabrielsson and Gustaf Larson:

Cars are driven by people – the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain safety.

Innovations such as the laminated windscreen and three-point seatbelt, amongst numerous others, evidence Volvo's longstanding commitment to safety. This traditional focus is perhaps best encapsulated by the Volvo 240.

Above: Volvo 240 sedan and estate

On both bodystyles, the wide, squared off bonnet, front profile and radiator together with the oversize bumper develop a large front crumple zone, maximising protection for occupants in the event of a severe frontal collision. On the estate variant in particular, the almost hearse like rear compartment also emphasises the 240's practicality, highlighting this model's unflinching utilitarian design.      

Under the ownership of its new Chinese parent Geely, Volvo has renewed its push as an alternative to the usual premium trio of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi through its differentiated focus on safety and Scandinavian luxury. Investments such as the $11 billion spent on developing the modular SPA platform and on a new engine architecture, together with advancements in safety and autonomous driving, such as autonomous emergency braking with large animal protection, highlight this.

Thus, although separated by numerous decades, the 240 and S90 are examples of being honest in a vehicle's purpose. The 240's design matches its utilitarian purpose almost to a fault, whilst the S90's design is line-ball with Volvo's current upmarket push into the luxury car market whilst maintaining a safety focus. In both cases, Volvo does not force the car to pretend to be something it isn't. Neither the 240 or the S90 are sporty cars, for example, and Volvo does not attempt to use bodykits or other cosmetic modifications to give them such false pretensions.

It is important to note that the lack of such superfluous embellishments does not compromise the car's design. Rather, it adds to it by demonstrating that the vehicle's designers had a clarity and honesty of thought about the car's purpose, and were bold enough to pursue their intentions to production.          

The Volkswagen XL1 is perhaps the seminal example of a vehicle with honesty of purpose.

Above: 2014 Volkswagen XL1. A diesel-electric plug-in hybrid, it had a production run of 250 units and was limited to European customers.

Features such as the enclosed rear wheels and the replacement of the wing mirrors with cameras assist the teardrop shape and low ride height in achieving the lowest coefficient of drag (0.189) of any production car, in turn maximising the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. Hence, the XL1 is a vehicle where every design decision makes a direct contribution to the overall purpose of the vehicle. These design features are not only uncompromising in their focus, but they each present a direct benefit to the driver of the vehicle. Although the overall result may be a vehicle that looks odd in comparison to a regular car, Volkswagen's designers and engineers are to be applauded for being thorough and resolute in their design and engineering decisions whilst still developing a production ready vehicle.

Digression: perceiving 'sportiness' 

To arrive at a better understanding of honesty of purpose, it is useful to analyse a vehicle that doesn't share this quality. The Toyota Corolla hatchback, especially in its ostensibly sporty trim levels, is a prime example.

Left: The entry-level Corolla Ascent. Right: The more expensive Corolla ZR

Styling changes such as the oversized, flared front skirts and gloss black honeycomb upper and lower front grilles are an example of Toyota's attempt to endow the Corolla with a sportier style by developing a more aggressive look. This theme is continued with the rest of the styling additions to the car, with side and rear skirts, a subtle rear spoiler and low profile 17-inch alloy wheels completing the aggressive look.

To explain why the Corolla is dishonest in its purpose, it is relevant to ask, how does a car manufacturer create something that is perceived as 'sporty' ?

Perhaps the most obvious lens through which a car can be distinguished as 'sporty' is through its proportions and stance.

Cars of a sporty nature tend to be (but not exclusively so) rear-wheel-drive (RWD), which means that the engine, typically located at the front of the car, transfers power via the transmission to the back two wheels.

Image credit Rapid-Racer.com

In terms of stance and proportion, this means that a sports car tends to have a large dash-to-axle ratio (the distance between the front axle and the dashboard). The driver/passenger compartment (the "cab") is well behind the front axle, creating the appearance of a long bonnet and a short, flowing rear deck. This is the archetypal sports car stance, as illustrated below:

The Toyota 86. Notice that the cab is significantly behind the front axle, as a result of the large dash-to-axle ratio. Together with the short front overhang and the stumpy rear deck, this creates a sporty appearance.

The RWD BMW 1-Series. Like the Toyota 86, the BMW manages to convey an inherently sporty appearance due to its large dash-to-axle ratio and cab backwards proportions.

The front-wheel-drive (FWD) Mazda 3. A sporting stance isn't necessarily restricted to a RWD car. The wing-mirror, intelligently positioned rearwards on the front door, together with the slanted A-pillar that seems to 'plunge' into the bonnet, gives the impression of a large dash-to-axle ratio. The heavily raked rear windscreen which flows into the tailgate emphasises the sporting appearance of the car.

The Alfa Romeo Brera. To a somewhat less successful degree, the Brera reveals a sporting character. The heavily raked rear windscreen and wide C-pillar give off an image of strength and power, but this is distorted towards the front of the car, with the large front overhang creating an ungainly appearance.

How does the Corolla, in turn, compare in its implementation of some of the design features highlighted above?

The Corolla fails to display any of the characteristics which give the aforementioned cars a sporting character. The dash-to-axle ratio is reduced in comparison, with minimal space between the edge of the door and the front axle. This results in the end of the A-pillar positioned almost on top of the wheel. Combined with the lack of clear delineation between the A-pillar and the bonnet, this creates the impression that the car is falling over itself, and gives away the Corolla's FWD driveline with a very cab forward appearance.

The more significant issue, however, is how Toyota attempts to rectify this inherently unsporting character in the ostensibly sporting "ZR" trim level.

Note that whilst the above vehicle is U.S. market, an identical bodykit is applied to Corollas in other regions including Australia. Scion (as the above Corolla is badged as) was formerly Toyota's North American, youth-oriented marque and is now defunct, having been absorbed into Toyota proper.

Examples of the visual ornamentation added to the Corolla. Top: Moulded side-skirts attached to the lower part of the Corolla's side panelling. Bottom: The oversized moulded front wings attached to the front bumper.

These additions, intended to give an aggressive appearance to the car, are fundamentally cheap and tacky. Rather than being a seamless, integrated part of the original exterior design, the front wings and side skirts overlap, rather than extend, the original metal of the body. Consequently, the additions appear as superficial afterthoughts, almost akin to someone finding waste material left over from producing the Corolla and then simply using super glue to paste the leftover scrap metal on top of the original car.

As a result, this unnecessary visual ornamentation fails to correct the inherently unsporting exterior design of the Corolla, in the same superficial sense that applying lipstick to a pig does not inherently alter or improve its physical appearance.

In this way, the "sportier appearing" trim levels of the Corolla are dishonest in terms of their purpose, as they distort the actual objective of the Corolla; namely to provide basic, reliable and affordable point to point transport.

In a sense, the entry level Corolla that lacks the spurious visual ornamentation of more expensive trim levels is actually a more honest design, as it fulfils its key purpose without attempting to convey any other intention.

Honest purpose

To play the devil's advocate, it's arguable that in today's consumerist world, there is a need to necessarily compromise on design in order to keep up with rapidly changing trends and market preferences, and that as such, it is more important that a company creates a car that subjectively looks good rather than having an objectively honest design in line with its purpose, especially in the budget market. While this may be true, as evidenced by the sales of the Corolla range as a whole, it clearly doesn't preclude vehicles with an honest purpose from also making their mark.

Honest materials

Whilst the intention that a manufacturer imbues in its vehicle is key, the actual materials used by a manufacturer are also very important in developing an overall honest design. Having an honesty of materials means being unashamed about displaying a material to the customer, and taking full advantage of the best qualities of that said material rather than distorting and misrepresenting it as another material. Being honest with materials is especially important in the vehicle's interior design, as the interior is where the vast majority of user interactions with the car take place.

Two common materials that are found in car interiors are wood and plastic.

Wood

Traditionally, and often today, wood has been used as a material to emphasise the premium or luxurious nature of a car's interior. Often applied across the dashboard and on the doors, wood trim can provide a visual contrast to other materials used in the interior. On certain car models, it can also differentiate a higher specification trim from its more basic counterpart.

Some key points of discussion are the type of wood trim used, how it has been finished and how it has been utilised within the context of the rest of the vehicle's interior.  

Above top and bottom: The interior of the 2014 BMW i3

The BMW i3 is a prime example of a vehicle that has incorporated wood trim in a genuine, honest manner. The dashboard includes a solid panel of genuine eucalyptus wood applied with a finish that preserves the original texture and look of the material. Additionally, BMW's sustainable sourcing of the eucalyptus is not only in line with other sustainable materials used in the interior, such as wool seats, but it also directly contributes to the overall environmental friendliness of the car, which in turn is a key purpose of BMW's "i" range of electric vehicles.

Above: 2016 Volvo S90

Volvo's S90 sedan is another great example of a car that has incorporated wood trim in an honest fashion. Rather than using wood veneer (i.e. a thin strip of wood glued to plastic) to save costs, Volvo opted to use a solid block of walnut. Like the BMW i3 above, by using a matté finish for this walnut that leaves the grain open, Volvo enhances the inherent characteristics of the wood itself. Together with other genuine materials such as the real metal door handles and trim running across the length of the dashboard, the S90 interior acts in harmony to foster a light, airy and welcoming atmosphere. In turn, this contributes positively to Volvo's purpose of providing a luxurious, Scandinavian alternative to the standard German trio.

Above top: 2005 Lexus ES. Bottom: 2001 Mercedes C-Class

Wood is an inherently strong and sturdy material. Thus, any proper application of it should give vehicle occupants a reassuring impression of solidity. By preserving and enhancing this inherent characteristic of wood, both the BMW i3 and the Volvo S90 are honest in their usage of this material, and consequently give the driver a positive impression.

The 2005 Lexus ES and the 2001 Mercedes C-Class, in contrast, do not live up to this standard and are examples of vehicles where wood trim has not been used in a genuine manner. The excessively glossy and lacquered finish to the trim in both cars creates a tacky and cheap impression that makes it unclear as to whether the trim used is a wood veneer or simply plastic coloured to resemble wood. That the nature of the trim itself is being called into question creates a dishonest impression that is significantly detrimental to both vehicles' interior design.

Plastic

Plastic is an inherently versatile and flexible material. It can be moulded and cut into countless different shapes, dyed with an infinite number of colours and can be made to form and resemble many different types of textures. Thus, although plastic presents car manufacturers with a wide scope of opportunity, it also presents manufacturers with great risks in overusing the material to their detriment, or as a substitute of a different material for cost reasons. In terms of an honest use of plastic, then, the challenge for manufacturers is to ensure that the plastic used is deliberately obvious and can be construed as nothing else but plastic. It cannot ashamedly be plastic. It must be unapologetically, unforgivingly plastic.

Above: 2013 Opel Adam

Above: 2016 Fiat 500

Both the Opel Adam and the Fiat 500 have interiors that fulfil this mandate. Rather than ashamedly using plastic to misrepresent another material, such as leather, metal or wood, it is clear to any observer at first glance that the Opel and Fiat present dashboards that can be construed as nothing but unapologetically plastic. By wholeheartedly embracing this fact, both Opel and Fiat have taken full advantage of the benefits of the material, namely its vibrancy, glossiness and customisability. Consequently, this allows both marques to present interior options to the customer that, while extensively tailorable, develop a dynamic, youthful and funky aesthetic in line with the market positioning of the vehicles in the supermini segment. In this sense, both vehicles possess interiors that incorporate an honest use of plastic that enables the inherent benefits of the material to be fully exploited.

Above: 2015 Toyota Camry

The Toyota Camry, in contrast, is an example of a vehicle where plastic is used to masquerade as another material. This is especially evident through the faux white stitching visible in the image above. Instead of using real stitching to join together a leather (or other fabric) dashboard, Toyota simply used coarse, fake injection moulded plastic "stitches" glued onto a plastic dashboard to ostensibly resemble and convey a premium impression. In this context, one of the worst qualities of plastic is made apparent; i.e. it's ability to act as a cheap substitute for a more expensive material. In turn, this creates a crude and decidedly dishonest impression in the customer's mindset that (similarly to the aforementioned wood resembling plastic) detracts from the interior design, due to Toyota's use of fake materials.

Conclusion

Honest design, as a whole, is a critical aspect of any vehicle's development. It should not be thought as a set of values restricted to more expensive vehicles that necessarily need to be compromised for budget vehicles to obtain success. Instead, honest design is a considered, universal philosophy that when inclusive of (but not limited to) a vehicle's purpose and the materials used, can create some of the most innovative and stunning vehicles on the market today, regardless of price. As a case in point, see the Volkswagen XL1 and the Volvo S90.  

Nissan Navara EnGuard Concept

Enhanced with several modifications such as a portable battery pack, drone and an increased ride height, this concept is ideally suited as a quick response vehicle for rescue services such as the Australian State Emergency Service (SES). Although it's unlikely that this vehicle will be put into production, it serves as a great template for aftermarket and custom vehicle builders.

From top to bottom: Front and rear three-quarter views of the EnGuard and the weatherproof portable battery pack in its aluminium housing.  

Winding Up The Window: The End Of The Australian Auto Industry

A touching, heartbreakingly melancholic comic on the death of the Australian automotive industry. An absolute must-read for anyone even remotely interested in Australian manufacturing and the economy.

Credit to Sam Wallman for this well-researched, insightful and fascinating piece of work. You can find more of Wallman's work on his blog and official website.

Harman automotive cyber-security system

From the Harman press release:

A few years ago the concept of automotive cyber security was largely confined to industry experts,” says Harman’s Asaf Atzmon, Director, Business Development and Marketing, Automotive Cyber Security. “Now it’s a topic that consumers are asking about. According to a recent survey, in some countries as many as 59 per cent of buyers are actively concerned about the prospect of car hacking.”

Harman has devised a specially-developed 5+1 security framework which consists of a series of layers that protects the car’s head unit from being compromised and used as a portal into the in-vehicle network (something which could jeopardise safety critical systems). It can be thought of like the layers of an onion.

Above: A diagram illustrating Harman's security system that incorporates the 'ECU shield' technology from the company's acquisition of Towersec in early 2016.

Above: The six 'onion-like' layers of Harman's security system.

While it is worth verifying and contextualising the statistic quoted by Atzmon, automotive cyber security is indeed becoming an increasingly critical aspect of vehicle technology. This is especially evident in the wake of demonstrations highlighting the catastrophic impact that a cyber attack can have on a car's safety and mobility.

Perhaps the best example of this increasingly rapid and methodical computerisation of cars is Harman itself, which until recently was known almost exclusively as a manufacturer of high-end audio systems under brands such as Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, Harman/Kardon and Mark Levinson. I strongly suspect that the company's audio business will soon be displaced by, or at a minimum, be given equal importance to, the firm's cyber-security and other automotive technology businesses. 

Tesla Model S P100D

From the Tesla press release:

The Model S P100D with Ludicrous mode is the third fastest accelerating production car ever produced, with a 0-60 mph time of 2.5 seconds. However, both the LaFerrari and the Porsche 918 Spyder were limited run, million dollar vehicles and cannot be bought new. While those cars are small two seaters with very little luggage space, the pure electric, all-wheel drive Model S P100D has four doors, seats up to 5 adults plus 2 children and has exceptional cargo capacity.

The 100 kWh battery also increases range substantially to an estimated 315 miles on the EPA cycle and 613 km on the EU cycle, making it the first to go beyond 300 miles and the longest range production electric vehicle by far.

It is incredible that the fastest accelerating vehicle you can currently purchase is not an exclusive, multimillion dollar sports car, but a practical family sedan with spacious luggage storage and comfortable seating for five. I can't think of a car where the phrase 'you can have your cake and eat it too' is more apt.

It's noteworthy that, with only a decade of development, a small, startup-like company is producing vehicles that have all but overtaken combustion engine powered cars not only in terms of performance, but in practicality and safety as well. This, more than anything, is evidence that the internal combustion engine is on its way out. We're only just getting started with electric vehicle development, and it's already obvious that the fundamental technology is an order of magnitude better than any fossil fuel powered car before it.

Having said that, electric vehicles will not sell on the virtue of being electric cars alone. Why has Tesla succeeded when other electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, despite being thousands of dollars cheaper, have failed? Because the Tesla is a great car, a product the consumer aspires to own. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a showcase of the potential of electric vehicles. But is it a great car? No.

Manufacturers must ensure that electric vehicles, first and foremost, are great cars. The design must take full advantage of the electric powertrain, and the company must also go to the effort of providing supporting infrastructure to alleviate any perceived shortcomings such as range anxiety. To this extent, the electric vehicle cannot be sold as a 'trophy' car used to demonstrate a company's or the consumer's ostensible commitment to the environment, but rather must be a vehicle that is sustainable, livable, and is practical enough to be used every day (and of course is envrionmentally friendly). Tesla has done this by going to the effort of developing an extensive network of 'Supercharger' fast charging points, and by using the extra space offered by the electric motor to substantially increase luggage space and safety via a 'front boot' and a much larger crumple zone.

Every electric vehicle will be more environmentally friendly than its combustion engine counterpart. Of course it will, as that is the innate nature of the powertrain itself. But what will distinguish a successful electric vehicle is whether it is a great car. At the moment, only Tesla, and perhaps BMW with its i3 and i8, meet this standard.

An electric car being environmentally friendly will be as much of a selling point in the future as a petrol car having fuel injection is today. Effectively null.